Cubs looking at locking up Samardzija as part of their core

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Cubs looking at locking up Samardzija as part of their core

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. The marketing department should put Jeff Samardzija front and center again. Hes got the long hair, tattoos, Notre Dame connection and blue-collar attitude.

Samardzijas a Chicago guy. In a clubhouse full of players still trying to find their identities and make sure they say the right things to the media, who else could do an impression of Hawk Harrelson?

And then deliver the zinger: You could always get a good nap in during the Sox game.

The Cubs are still shopping for two legitimate starting pitchers during the general manager meetings at the Hyatt Regency outside Palm Springs, Calif. Theyve reportedly submitted a bid for the right to negotiate with Korean left-hander Hyun-jin Ryu, and are pushing to re-sign reliever Shawn Camp, their only free agent.

But in the back of their mind, the Cubs are also thinking about a contract extension for Samardzija. Industry sources confirmed on Thursday that the Cubs have discussed the possibility internally and reached out to Samardzijas camp. Even if its only preliminary and far from a slam dunk it shows that hes become a core player.

The Cubs dont have to hype Samardzija anymore or explain why they made a 10 million investment in an All-American wide receiver. A classic Jim Hendry signing has become a key piece for the Theo Epstein administration, perhaps the next in line for a new deal after the commitment to Starlin Castro last summer.

Im not going to comment on it, general manager Jed Hoyer said. But he had a great year and certainly is a guy we hope to have in a Cubs uniform for a long time. Hes a great competitor. I think hes the kind of guy that teammates really look up to. He has the potential down the road to be a really good leader.

So far, hes had to worry about himself as hes matured in the game. Its hard to be a leader when youre also trying to establish a career. But I think now that hes had a really great season, he can probably be that guy. I got nothing but positive things to say about the year he had. Getting to know him, hes really impressive.

At this time last year, Samardzija might have had two good half-seasons in the big leagues during an up-and-down career as a reliever. He lobbied Epstein for a shot in the rotation and responded by going 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA and getting stronger later in the season.

Samardzija posted a 2.58 ERA in 11 starts after the All-Star break. He notched 180 strikeouts in 174.2 innings before a precautionary September shutdown. He expects to be unleashed next season for 200 innings and assume some of the leadership responsibilities once held by Ryan Dempster.

Only Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price fired a fastball with a higher average velocity (95.5 mph) than Samardzija (95.1 mph), according to the online database at FanGraphs.

With that type of ceiling, Samardzija might not be in a hurry to sign over his three arbitration-eligible seasons. He will turn 28 next year and remains under club control through 2015. Hes insisted that he feels even younger than that because theres not as much wear and tear on his right arm after focusing on football for so long.

When asked back in August, Samardzija played it cool while the visiting clubhouse was buzzing with reports about Castros potential 76 million extension in between games of a doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds.

Arbitration is a good scenario for a player, Samardzija said that afternoon. It was put there by the players (union) and its a fair situation. Like Ive said all along, I signed a nice contract coming out of college and I dont have many expenses. I dont have that many bills to pay. So I dont really need any money to tell you the truth.

Im not asking for anything. Im asking to pitchIm here to work. Im not here to get paid. Im here to prove that I can play this game every fifth day and be a guy (who can) help take this team where we want to go.

Samardzija brings swagger and confidence to the clubhouse, and that could color any negotiation. During the final week of the season, he indicated that hed be willing to listen.

Obviously, Id like to hear what they have to say simply because this is where I want to be, Samardzija said. But then again, that also might mean theres really no rush to do anything. They have my rights for three more years and Ive openly stated a lot of times that this is where I want to be.

I wanted to be here when it wasnt going good and I still want to be here when (it gets) good. That hasnt changed. Obviously, Im excited to see the kind of pieces were going to add and the direction were going to go, because I want to be a big part of this solution in the future.

The Cubs still need a third baseman, an outfielder and some bullpen help, but they may have already found a No. 1 starter. Who knows what that might cost on the open market in 2016 and beyond?

But until then, the Cubs should be selling Samardzija jerseys alongside those of Castro and Anthony Rizzo, because a player once almost written off as a total bust is now part of Epsteins core.

Why Cubs fandom was inescapable in covering the greatest story in sports

Why Cubs fandom was inescapable in covering the greatest story in sports

I wished I got punched in the back of the head.

OK, maybe not exactly, but it was more about where and when the punch occurred.

My roommate was among the epic crowd of people outside Wrigley Field after the Cubs put the finishing touches on their World Series championship, and he took a punch or an elbow to the back of the head as people were getting trampled. The most apt comparison I heard likened the mob to Jon Snow nearly suffocating in the "Battle of Bastards" on "Game of Thrones".

Soaked in champagne, I was 350 miles away in Cleveland, living out my lifelong career goal of covering the Cubs team that finally put the 108-year championship drought to an end.

It might seem crazy, but there was a definite internal conflict going on amid the madness. A part of me wished I was back in Wrigleyville for the legendary celebration even though I was witnessing — and had witnessed — history with my own eyes.

Why?

I grew up a Cubs fan.

There is so much weight in those six words, but it at least begins to scratch the surface of why I wanted to be a part of the post-Game 7 celebration mob and why I sat in a dark screening room in downtown Chicago last Wednesday night with a tear in my eye.

********

"To cover the Cubs team that finally ends the drought and wins the World Series."

That was my stock answer whenever anybody asked about where I hoped to be five, 10 years down the road in my career.

Saying nothing about how hard that question is to answer in this field, it really was my main motivation. I couldn't truly think beyond that. It was all I ever wanted from my career in sports journalism.

Baseball and the Cubs have been so prevalent in my 30 years of existence. They're synonymous with oxygen or food. This June will mark the 26th year I've played baseball in some form, and my spring and summer months are still planned around the Cubs schedule, though now it's based on work and covering games instead of attending and watching games.

I don't identify as a Cubs fan now — haven't for years — given my time in the journalism field and the need for objectivity.

But I can safely say I was rooting for the Cubs to win it all last fall. I'm sure 9-year-old Tony was a major contributing factor in that rooting interest, but as much as anything else, I was rooting for the story, as USA TODAY Sports' Erik Brady so aptly put it in his column about Michigan basketball last week.

In a way, this was a tragic career goal in that I had absolutely nothing to do with the product on the field. I couldn't control a thing about the Cubs winning the World Series. All I could do was document it by typing on a laptop.

At the 2016 Cubs Convention, a Chicago reporter saw me talking to my mom and sister, who were all decked out in Cubs garb, having a blast at the convention as lifelong Cubs fans enjoying all the "Embrace the Target" talk and still riding high after the surprise 2015 postseason run.

"Your family is Cubs fans?" the reporter asked.

"Yep," I responded.

"That's kinda f---ed up," he joked.

I laughed and agreed with him, "Yeah it kinda is."

I mean, he's right. How many people covering a baseball team grew up a fan of that squad?

["Reign Men: The Story Behind Game 7 of the 2016 World Series" premieres Monday night at 9:30 p.m.]

How does somebody who grew up a Cubs fan cover the team objectively? To be honest, it was simple at first. When the team loses 100 games, it's easy to be removed and report on what's happening with no clouded judgment. It's not hard to avoid cheering in the press box.

By the time the Cubs started that surprising 2015 run, I had learned how to practice the necessary objectivity, and more than anything, I was stoked just to be covering a Cubs playoff team. I wanted them to advance because it meant more playoffs to cover.

Like Joe Maddon always talks about five stages of a player earning his "big league skin," I was in the stage of "just happy to be here."

I morphed all my personal motivations into an altruistic goal: I wanted the Cubs to win the World Series for my mom and my sister and the rest of my family and friends who lived and died with the Cubs. All the people who felt like weeping or punching through a window in 2003. And 2007. And 2008.

I knew the emotions of the fan base because I had felt them — and lived them — all before.

I had always seen the Cubs and their championship drought through my own lens and those vantage points of people around me: Chicagoans, Cubs fans, people who have had the Cubs ingrained in their lives whether they liked it or not.

Obviously the 2016 Cubs were a perfect blend of youth, hunger and determination that helped them turn a blind eye to the pressure and weight of 108 years.

But I never really thought about the drought any differently because all I ever knew as a Chicago native born into a "Cubs family" was three decades of hearing about the "Lovabale Losers" label.

It wasn't until a conversation with Matt Szczur in the clubhouse in spring training that I realized these Cubs really didn't think of the magnitude of the situation. Certainly not the way I did.

Szczur, for example, has been with the organization longer than any player, but he still had only been fully conscious of the Cubs and the championship drought since 2010, the year he was drafted.

For him, it wasn't 108 years. For Szczur and the other guys — except for maybe World Series MVP Ben Zobrist, the Eureka, Ill., native — the Cubs' drought and much-ballyhooed curse really only mattered to them for a few years. It wasn't a lifestyle.

********

Sitting on a workout bench in a cramped Pasadena hotel gym, hours before the Cubs and Dodgers were to do battle in Game 3 of the 2016 National League Championship Series, I grabbed my phone and started frenetically typing.

I felt the urge to jot down some thoughts that were swimming through my brain as I stared down a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Win or lose, the Cubs were on the precipice of history and here I was, covering the team and tasked with trying to describe and chronicle this momentous event that stretched far beyond just words on a screen.

It wasn't predicting the future. That did not happen. But I just had a feeling a storm might be coming for the 2016 Cubs.

That usually means a harbinger of doom, but storms don't always have to be bad. For example, a storm is a welcome sight during a drought.

Like...say...a 108-year championship drought.

The problem is, even though I started writing this column way back in October, I didn't go back to it until last week. Even after the Cubs won their first pennant in a lifetime, even after they clawed back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series to force a Game 7.

I thought maybe I'd return to it after the surreal parade and rally two days after Game 7 and seeing the five million faces displaying the same emotions I had buried deep inside.

Nope.

Maybe a few weeks later, after some time had passed to gain perspective?

Nope.

OK, well then definitely when we replayed all 11 of the Cubs' postseason wins on CSN around the holidays?

Nope again. Still blocked up.

The Cubs Convention in January didn't help cure my creative constipation. Neither did a two-week trip to Arizona to delve back into the beat and the energy of a new season.

Even seeing my mom's dining room table overflowing with Cubs World Series memorbilia or attempting to describe the experience to family and friends couldn't truly unwrap the words and emotions tucked away.

All those probably helped unclog the writer's block bit by bit, but just like somebody struggling to open a pickle jar, that one last push was still evading me.

That is until last Wednesday night.

After debuting "Reign Men: The Story Behind Game 7 of the 2016 World Series" for the press, CSN employees got an opportunity to see the documentary in a private screening.

Fifty-two minutes and countless goosebumps later, it felt as if a weight had been lifted.

I've seen, heard and read plenty on the Cubs' epic World Series run and even replayed it over and over again in my mind.

But nothing truly took me back to those moments and the magical fall like "Reign Men" did.

Like all sports, baseball is very much driven by an "on to the next one" mindset.

Strike out? Move on. Botch a groundball? Move on.

It works the other way, too: Hitting three homers on a Monday doesn't help bring a win Tuesday night.

There's always another pitch, another at-bat, another game, another season. That's part of the beauty of the game.

But what about when you want to slow things down, take it all in and enjoy the moment?

The game moves too fast for that. Life moves too fast for that.

It took a couple days, but I realized part of what struck me so much with "Reign Men" was it represented a vessel to go back, to relive an event I had been dreaming about for nearly three decades. In so many ways, it still feels like it was all just a dream: My ultimate career goal realized.

I'll probably spend the rest of my life trying to truly wrap my head around this World Series and the impact the greatest story in American sports history had.

But for now, it's baseball, so time to jump to the next inning.

"Reign Men: The Story Behind Game 7 of the 2016 World Series" will debut Monday night at 9:30 p.m. (after Blackhawks coverage) on CSN and a special re-air will be shown Thursday night at 7 p.m.

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

From ‘When It Happens’ to ‘Where It Happens,’ Cubs mining next generation of talent

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs turned Theo Epstein’s “Baseball is Better” speech from his first Wrigley Field press conference into a marketing pitch that might distract fans for a moment from an awful big-league product.          

The 2017 “That’s Cub” ad campaign actually uses what started organically years ago within the farm system, two words that recognized a great at-bat or a heads-up play or a defensive stop.    

Business vs. baseball is no longer the dominant storyline it had been during the early phases of the Wrigleyvile rebuild. Business and baseball are booming for what’s become Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors.

It’s just interesting that a franchise valued at north of $2 billion has found so much inspiration on the back fields of this spring-training complex, where staffers you wouldn’t recognize get to work before dawn and players you’ve never heard of dream about their big break.

It’s not just drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. And trading for Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell. And hiring a manager obsessed with T-shirts. Baseball operations became a marketing department, selling prospects to Cub fans, the Chicago media and the gurus putting together the rankings – and trying to get buy-in from players who all think they belong in The Show.

Minor-league field coordinator Tim Cossins gets credit for “When It Happens,” a theme that didn’t simply revolve around 1908 and the championship drought. Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, suggested pairing the W flag with that phrase, and it became this ubiquitous idea around the team.   

“We tied everything into it,” McLeod said Sunday at Sloan Park. “When that time comes, when it happens, can you lay the bunt down? When it happens, can you execute a pitch? Can you go in and pinch-run, steal the base when the time comes?

“The big ‘When It Happens’ is when we win, of course, but for us in (player development), it was about everything that we’re going to be asked to do in that moment: Are you going to be ready when it happens?”

Now what? The defending World Series champs are going with: “Where It Happens.”

A bullet point from Epstein’s bio in this year’s media guide references how his first three first-round draft picks with the Cubs “combined to set up the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series when Schwarber singled and (Albert) Almora pinch-ran, moved to second on Bryant’s deep fly to center, and scored on Ben Zobrist’s double.”

“We’re never going to forget about the importance of young players,” Epstein said. “There’s definitely a lot of talented, interesting prospects still in the system and sometimes they get a little overshadowed because of the star young players we have at the big-league level and how quickly some of those guys moved through the system. But there’s a lot of talent there.

“We’re going to lean on young players beyond our prospects, not just in trades, but also to provide organizational depth and also to serve as the next generation, the next infusion of talent at the appropriate time.

“But it’s a process. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in development for all these guys. And we have a ton of faith in our player development operation to help these guys along the way.”

So Ian Happ will start the season one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa and see if some combination of injuries and his switch-hitting skills and defensive versatility gets him to the North Side at some point. Or used as a trade chip for pitching, the way third baseman Jeimer Candelario and catcher Victor Caratini appear to be blocked.

Joe Maddon already compared Eloy Jimenez – who can’t legally buy a beer in Wrigleyville yet – to a young Miguel Cabrera or Edgar Martinez. The Cubs are practically begging for someone like Eddie Butler to pitch his way into the 2018 rotation.

By Monday morning, when the full squad reconvenes after a weekend trip to Las Vegas, the Cubs could start making cuts and shaping their Opening Night roster. But the Cubs are going to need so much more than the 25 players who will be introduced next Sunday at Busch Stadium. Maddon used 26 pitchers and 149 different lineups last season. This is “Where It Happens.”

“If this particular group of youngsters were in a different organization that had a greater need right now, you’d probably hear a lot more about these guys,” Maddon said. “But the fact that they’re stuck behind a Bryant and a Russell and a Javy (Baez) and a Rizzo and a (Willson) Contreras and a Schwarber, et cetera, et cetera, it becomes more difficult to really push or project upon these guys.

“But I think these young guys have gone about their business really well. If it’s bothering them or if they’re concerned about that, they’re not showing that. I think they’ve put their best foot forward.”